On January 12, the Ottawa Senators had just lost their fifth game in a row, and were tied with the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders for eighth in the Eastern Conference, with the Atlanta Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning just two points behind them. The Sens have won all seven games since then, and currently sit comfortably in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 62 points, seven ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers and five behind the Buffalo Sabres for tops in the Northeast Division.
As much as people might jokingly attribute the turnaround to the firing (or sacrifice) of former goaltending coach Eli Wilson, it's been about more than that. Obviously, the return of Daniel Alfredsson to the lineup after missing 11 games should be top of the list, and the returns of (in order) Nick Foligno, Filip Kuba, Milan Michalek, and Jason Spezza from their respective injuries also helped. As did the suddenly-solid goaltending of Mike Brodeur for the first two games of the winning streak, and then Brian Elliott for the most recent four.
Obviously, just adding these players makes the team better, and helps those they play with directly. But it also indirectly helps those they don't play with, and that's as important as the direct impact they bring to the ice. By re-assuming his role on he first line, Alfredsson allows a player like Jonathan Cheechoo to move back down to a more fitting third-line role. In essence, it restores the balance to the lineup, and allows players to move into positions in the lineup where they are most well-suited.
Although the Senators' lines are fluid these days, let's take a look at the opening combinations from Tuesday night's win over the New Jersey Devils to see how the balance has been restored, and which players have been most pivotal in allowing Cory Clouston to roll his four lines successively.
(Read more... )
The top line is fairly obvious to spot: Spezza in the middle of Michalek and Alfredsson. Three of the Senators most dynamic players, these guys will be counted on to produce offence often. Even if they can't, though, they still provide something very valuable: They draw the attention of the opposition's top checkers, and open up opportunities for the second, third, and fourth line.
In my opinion, the second line is the key to the Senators' recent success. Obviously, Alex Kovalev's seven-game point-scoring streak coincides with Ottawa's seven-game winning streak, and his contributions in leading the team offensively have been paramount. But what's really been helping the team is the way Peter Regin and Ryan Shannon have stepped up their play. Whether this is an aberration or what we can expect from these two for the future remains to be seen, but by bringing their game to the next level, Regin and Shannon take some pressure off of, for instance, Mike Fisher and Cheechoo, both of whom have had expectations of consistent production, but for whatever reason have gone cold (Fisher in the sort-term, Cheechoo in the three-season-long, continuously-declining term). Kovalev seems to enjoy playing with quick, creative, young linemates like Regin and Shannon--similar to his best times in Montreal, on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn--and his presence has helped them this season, and should help their long-term development.
Which leaves a third line of, oddly enough, the Senators' second leading scorer, Fisher, centring Cheechoo and Foligno. It could be argued that this line was the Senators' most effective on Tuesday night, particularly because of strong play by Foligno--which was likely helped by the fact that he and his linemates were up against the lesser-lights of the New Jersey lineup. Foligno was the lone player from this line to get a point in the game, but Cheechoo (whose lack of mobility wasn't as exposed while on the third line) had a goal called back and hit a post, and Fisher played shutdown hockey, throwing eight hits on the night. More production can (and will) be expected of Fisher and Foligno, but the fact that so many Senators are rolling right now makes their relative lack of scoring less destructive.
Which brings us to the fourth line of Chris Kelly, Chris Neil, and Jarkko Ruutu--the role players. Kelly and Ruutu are chief penalty-killers, while Neil is looked to for physical leadership. When they're on the ice together, their scoring chances aren't commonplace (they combined for one shot against New Jersey), but they apply some of the strongest forechecking, and generate momentum with a very strong offensive-zone cycle. The fact that Ruutu is the most offensively gifted of the three is telling, but the group provides when they have the puck and when they're away from it.
All that is to say nothing of the (recently) strong defensive play of Ottawa's blueliners, and the resurgent goaltending while Ottawa's number one keeper has been out of the lineup. Going into the season, the Senators appeared to have depth previously unknown to the organization, but it was dependent upon a few variables: Whether or not Fisher and Foligno could have bounce-back seasons, how effective Shannon and Regin could be with a full season of NHL hockey, whether or not Kovalev would show up, how effective Spezza could be without Dany Heatley, and how the seemingly ageless Alfredsson would do as he gets nearer to what the league calls old age. There's still plenty of hockey to be played, but the team has answered the bell of late.